When Yuwadee Viriyangkura, Ed.D. ’13, arrived on campus in 2009, she was thousands of miles from home, was still developing her skills in American English, and possessed just one strong contact: Jim Thompson, a professor in the Department of Special Education.

However, in December, the Thai educator persevered by graduating from the department’s nationally recognized doctoral program. Her accomplishment is a testament to her dedication to serving the students and families in Thailand who need her most.

Viriyangkura said that while there are a number of special education teachers in larger Thai cities, like Bangkok, families in rural areas have little to no access to such support. Still, she did not quite understand how great the need was until she began training educators and consulting parents through a grant that expanded the reach of her institution, Srinakharinwirot University (SWU) in Bangkok.

“Families in those areas didn’t even know what they were missing,” Viriyangkura said. “Their schools lacked qualified special education teachers, and it was because Thailand doesn’t have enough knowledgeable professors in teachers colleges to prepare them.”

Viriyangkura knew that in order to help reverse the root cause of the problem, she would need to pursue a doctorate and become a teacher educator. Because publicly funded special education services and research in Thailand is still in its infancy, she sought out programs in the U.S.

Ywadee Viriyangkura and Stephanie DeSpain at the 2013 American Association on Intellectual Disabilities in Pittsburg.

Yuwadee Viriyangkura and Stephanie DeSpain at the 2013 American Association on Intellectual Disabilities Conference (AAIDD) in Pittsburgh.

Her decision to come to Normal was encouraged in part by her supervisor, Kullaya Kosuwan, an SWU professor who earned a doctorate in special education from Illinois State in 2004. In fact, Thompson served as Kosuwan’s dissertation chair, as well.

“I was so pleased when Kullaya wrote to me and indicated that she had mentored a Thai student who had proven to be quite exceptional and was encouraging this student to apply for our doctoral program,” Thompson said. “When she expressed that she hoped the student would become one of my advisees, it was the greatest compliment for which I could ask.”

Viriyangkura’s course work and dissertation was focused on how to improve the support for individuals with intellectual or related developmental disabilities. This involved analyzing a great deal of data from a state developmental disability agency. She was also active in local initiatives, volunteered at community-based service agencies, and assisted individuals with a range of disabilities in schools.

“I learned a lot from observing and working with effective special educators in the field both inside and outside of the ISU classroom,” she said. “I developed an understanding of how to successfully apply education theories to real-life situations, and I’ll adapt them to Thai society.”

Ywadee Viriyangkura at the 2011 American Association on Intellectual Disabilities in Saint Paul, MN.

Yuwadee Viriyangkura at the 2011 American Association on Intellectual Disabilities Conference (AAIDD) in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Although Viriyangkura rarely visited home while completing her program, she was able to reconnect with several of her colleagues because of Illinois State’s partnerships with SWU and other Thai institutions. The University facilitated several workshops and other professional development opportunities. Viriyangkura said that between those visits, the selfless nature of ISU faculty, and the program’s thorough and empowering curriculum, she hardly had a chance to feel homesick.

“I was always impressed by how supportive the ISU community was,” she said. “In addition to rigor of the program, people here are so welcoming and understanding; I could feel it since the time I applied to ISU until my last day here. I benefited from choosing this great institution, and by working with (Thompson), who provided a tremendous level of academic and professional support throughout the years.”

Viriyangkura believes her education at Illinois State has given her the confidence and efficacy to be an effective teacher educator, and she is excited to advance special education in her country. As she has found out, so are administrators of higher education institutions in Thailand. Viriyangkura received four job offers from urban-based institutions before she graduated. However, she turned them all down and sought out a position at Chiangmai University in a rural northern province of Thailand. There, she will spearhead a brand new undergraduate program in special education.

“Yuwadee’s intelligence and passion for children with disabilities will be the qualities that will make her a leader in the field of special education,” said Thompson. “Although the program of study at ISU definitely expanded her knowledge base, she came here with the capacity to do great things.”

Viriyangkura will start the next leg of her inspiring journey this month, but she will carry the important lessons learned in the U.S. throughout her career.

“Coming to study in the States was the most important decision and the biggest turning point for me,” she said. “I wanted to make a difference in the field of special education in Thailand, and I now feel like I can do that.”